Indian Hindu weddings have always been accompanied by two adjectives: big and fat. Days of functions, from the engagement to the Mehendi to the sangeet to the cocktail party to the actual wedding itself, which lasts for hours and is a spectacle of pomp and grandeur, finally wrapped up with a reception that has the couple itching to break away from all the formalities and just get started on their honeymoon already!
However, there are some Hindu communities in India that defy this stereotype and have extremely simple, short weddings. One such community is the Nair community of Kerala, whose wedding ceremonies don’t usually last longer than 15 minutes.
A Community That Initially Didn’t Believe In Marriage
The Nairs are historically the warrior caste in Kerala, and it’s interesting to note that in a subcontinent with a rising reputation for conservatism, this community initially didn’t even have weddings!
The lifestyle of a warrior ensured only one thing- uncertainty. Because of this, tying oneself to a Nair man for life was seen as an impractical thing to do, as his lifestyle of warfare offered no guarantee that he would have time for his family.
The Sambandham System
So, the Nairs came up with a system known as sambandham, or “relationship.” This community has always been matrilineal, due to the fact that historically, the men have been off at war, and the women have been in charge of the household. An elderly man in the family, usually an uncle, would find a suitable Nair boy to have a relationship with his niece.
The man would offer a mundu (two-piece sari) to the woman, and if she accepted, it signalled the beginning of their relationship. He would live with her, in her house, and they would live like a married couple, even to the extent of having children together. And once the Uncle decided that the alliance had reached fruition, or the woman found the man undesirable, she would leave his slippers outside the house, to signify that he was no longer welcome there. And then, the hunt for a new sambandham would begin.
When Nairs Started Getting Married
In the past 200 years or so, thanks to the waning of the princely states, the warfare in Kerala has reduced. Thanks to this, the community has begun the practice of marriage.
First comes the nishchayam, or the engagement, where the couple formally announces their intention to marry. An auspicious date and time for the wedding, known as muhurtham, is agreed upon by both families.
The Nairs are unique in that their wedding ceremonies have no priests and no fire. In a throwback to the old matrilineal system, the wedding is usually conducted by the bride’s uncle. The age-old practice of the man giving the woman a mundu or a sari has been retained.
The wedding begins with the beautiful practice of the young girls in the family walking out of the venue with plates of flowers and lamps, and then returning- a sign that they have taken all the bad energy out of the venue. This custom is known as thaalam pidikka.
The groom ties a thaali with a pendant in the shape of a leaf round the bride’s neck- a reference to aalilla Krishnan, a form of Lord Krishna as a baby, as many Nair families worship Krishna as their chief deity. The couple then exchanges garlands and rings, and walk thrice around a collection of sacred objects placed in the middle of the venue like lit lamps or vilakku, coconuts, and so on, with their hands entwined. The entire ceremony usually doesn’t take longer than 15 minutes.
However, Nair weddings are still a relatively new concept, and are still evolving, borrowing elements like mehendi, sindoor, and so on from other cultures to elongate the ceremony. But the beauty and depth of meaning in their simple ceremonies in undeniable- a ceremony that keeps the essence of the union alive without getting lost in the noise of a lavish event.
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